How to explain the violent expressions in the Old Testament?

Sacrificio IsaccoThe Old Testament contains some violent expressions, not so pleasant, and sometimes shocking. God appears in his rage, angry, indignant until menacing destruction, death, and the annihilation of who goes against his will and laws. How can we give an explanation to all this?

We need to as a first thing observe that God has always two aspects: justice  and forgiveness. In the old testament, how the commiserate card. Carlo Maria Martini explained:  «God takes by hand his people, He corrects them, He educates them and he puts them again in his primary project of joyousness». His work is «a work of education […]. Only the human’s evil brings Him to rage. So then He becomes a warrior  (Is.42,13) and fights with invincible strength, using even the forces of nature (Ger 30,23; 51,1) or human armies which become his battle instruments (Is 10,5; 13,3-5). But his objective is never a definitive extermination, how already the  Great Flood shows, with Noah and his family that survive (Gn 6,5-9,17). His actions even if sometimes very severe for the hardness of mind and heart of humans, are actions of punishment and correction, in order that humans can understand their mistakes, so that they cannot  play around with Him, and return humbly to Him, always ready to forgive (Is 10,24-25; 16-18)» (“Guida alla lettura della Bibbia” p. 14,75).

Sometimes a loving father and sometimes a severe educator who wants to mold the people of Israel, “Stiff-necked people”. An example: God asks Abraham the not understandable sacrifice of his son Isaac, but when he is about to kill him, God blocks the happening: this is a challenge to faith, it’s a method of education, it’s not sadism. So if in this way we can explain the severe act of God which sometimes we can observe in the Old Testament, the perplexity in front of some Psalms and canticles, in which evil is demanded, cursing their enemies of God’s enemies, asking for their destruction, annihilation, disappearance. Various examples are in the Psalter and they are called “imprecatory psalms”.  A discontinuity with the evangelical message of the New Testament.

A reflection on this argument was very interesting on the “Avvenire”, of the theologian Enzo Bianchi, prior of Comunità monastica di Bose. For the first thing he exposed that even after the gained scandal, the Church «has never allowed to separate the two Testaments, It has condemned who lacerates the Scriptures, It has always proclaimed that God’s word is contained in the Scriptures of Israel and in the Scriptures of Christians in an absolutely non separable way». But it is still understandable that «a Christian who hasn’t gained the entire maturity of Faith has difficulties to conciliate these biblical expressions of violence with his faith and prayers».

But he even has explained, what is so contradictory? Why get scandalized? Why being hypocrites, like who says that reading the Bible gets you far from faith? Prayers aren’t only being thankful, prayers aren’t only requests. «Towards God»,  says Bianchi, «we shout, we yell in the moments of anguish, of desperation,  we cry out for the violence received (Jesus that cries on the cross!)». «Prayers are a power which acts in history, a strength to oppose to the enormous strength of evil and of evil people […], praying against the oppressor is praying with the oppressed, it’s demanding and announcing the judgment of God in history and on history. We can find in this a “partiality” that disturbs our  internal goodness: in reality we pray in history and not out of it, and history isn’t already redeemed, or not all sainted, but it needs judgment, opinion, discernment».

Prayers he even said, «are choosing to stay on the side of the victim or the side of the executioner;  they are choosing to be the victim or his tormentor. In the Psalter these expressions are very common in the mouth of who is suffering, in front of the enemies, personal  enemies, enemies of Israel, or God’s enemies: those enemies who torment him, who torture him, who want his death. But, it’s important to never forget, these are imprecations present in supplication psalms, however always  directed to God or confessed in front of Him […]. They are groans, cries, begs formulated in situations of desperation. Certainly they are sometimes excessive supplications; but who can ever measure them or condemn them if he had never found himself in the same situation of violence in his own person? What would we shout in similar situations? And the most important thing: would we shout staying in front of God, invoking Him?».

To mutilate these scriptures «means to become poorer of those depositions in “flash and blood” that we find in the Bible. In response  to the action of evil in the history the  “against prayers”, the invectives contained in the psalms of supplication are an instrument of praying for the poor, the oppressed, the good people who are persecuted:  they react with their shouts, because  for them in history there isn’t any space!». Besides it’s very due to notice that in front of an injustice, the believer obliges him self to not make justice on his own, and he does not fall in to the temptation to react at evil with evil, at violence with violence, but he leaves making  justice to God.

In the Old Testament, Enzo Bianchi concluded, these imprecatory psalms «establish a radical overcoming to the eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth law». These scriptures, if read in truth, «will not lead us to scandals but they are going to give us a big lesson:  these speakers show great patience. These people don’t make justice by themselves, they don’t use war, rather they block their instinct of violence and they trust only in God. This is their faith: here is where their cry to God arises». 

The editorial staff

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A comment to How to explain the violent expressions in the Old Testament?

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  1. Fulton Sheen wrote

    Very interesting that one good explanation about the harshness of Old Testament comes from Carlo Maria Martini, considered to be part of the most progressive wing of Catholic Church

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